Lost in the supermarket? The role of big business in social enterprise


Reflecting on my visit to The Gathering I was reading over the notes I made and was struck by the prevalence given to the private sector in at least two of the workshops I attended. In the session run by Joseph Rowntree Foundation there was lots of discussion about how important it is to hold private companies to account as we try to tackle poverty in Scotland. This is particularly relevant with regards to banking, private rental sector and energy, the cost of which contribute to the poverty premium and contribute to the high cost of living which is partly responsible for poverty in the UK today.

The second session with a consideration of the private sector was a session called ‘From ‘Asking’ to ‘Earning’ – Opportunities for social enterprises to work in the world of retail’ which was run by Asda and Social Investment Scotland. The main thrust of the session was to highlight the new ‘Asda Social Enterprise Supplier Development Academy’ which will provide social enterprises the opportunity to ‘strengthen their understanding of supermarket retail and refine their commercial and marketing skills, with the potential to get their products on supermarket shelves in Scotland…or even beyond’. SIS and Asda were joined by Sylvia Douglas, the founder of MsMissMrs social enterprise who is applying to attend the academy.


Without wanting to demonise the whole of the private sector I did have some concerns about the role they might play as they develop relationships with social enterprise and aired these with my CommonHealth colleagues which resulted in an interesting debate:

On the one side of the debate is a view that reflected the discussion in the JRF session I attended- that involvement of the private sector allows social enterprises to improve the private sector, promote a stronger social conscience and hold them to account in their less ethical practices. Social enterprises will also benefit from access to a large retail market, the importance of which was emphasised by Sylvia who wanted to be able to focus her attention on delivering her social mission rather than spending valuable time and energy at small scale retail events. Despite my concerns it would be disingenuous not to consider the view from social enterprise and recognise the benefits of having an higher income in order to pursue the social aims, however, at what are the implications of receiving income from working with Asda Walmart?

The worry is that the notion of social enterprise will be ‘watered down’ once multinational corporations begin to use them as a form of corporate social responsibility. Asda, part of the Walmart Corporation does not have a positive, socially aware image, particularly in relation to the working conditions of their employees (examples here and here). If people are making an educated decision to support social enterprise in their consumer behaviour there is a risk of reduced confidence in social enterprises as they begin to compromise to fit the mould of a large scale retail supplier. This has implications for the social enterprise sector as a whole as the balance between social and enterprise is seen to tip in favour of enterprise as compromises are made that undermine wider social concerns. SIS pointed to these potential compromises as a challenge for social enterprises who might have to reconsider price points, sources of their materials and possibly outsource their production activities. In making such compromises the concern is that the ‘social’ in social enterprise becomes meaningless as enterprises are drawn into the less ethical practices of big business.

If Asda were sincere in their interest in social enterprise would they instead be considering what compromises they could make to work with social enterprises, rather than the other way around? Or would we rather that big business stays totally clear of social enterprises in order to retain some of the community based, cooperative roots of social enterprise in Scotland and baulk at the idea of Asda partnering with social enterprise?

Among the many questions that the Commonhealth research programme is attempting to address, we are trying to explore how different social enterprises manage the balance between ‘social’ and ‘enterprise’ aims, and what this means for health outcomes.

Clementine Hill OConnor

In search of ‘The Answer’

The wall of conceptual models which has 'helped' to 'guide' my 'thinking'
The wall of conceptual models which has ‘helped’ to ‘guide’ my ‘thinking’

“But what is social enterprise?”

“Well, it’s ambiguous”

“And what is health?”

“Well, it’s vague”

“Please explain…”

The above exchange has taken place on numerous occasions over the past year, with me having played both roles depending on who I’m speaking to. This post is about some of those conversations.

The first took place in my job interview. I was the respondent, sweating while giving textbook answers about the different methods of delivering social impact and the difference between salutogenesis and pathogenesis. Things often seem easier when you think you know the answer, so I learned what I thought were the answers.

And then I became the questioner, to establish what I considered a necessary foundation before the real work started. I had just started my first job in research, entitled ‘A contemporary analysis of social enterprise as a public health intervention’ and I needed to know what those things meant. As is often the way in academia, very soon you realise that everything you thought you knew (the aforementioned ‘answers’) is in actuality full of gaping theoretical holes. As I tried to wade through the mountains of literature, all contradicting each other, all I wanted to know was “What is it?” because I thought that was how you found the answer, and I thought that’s what I needed to do.

But what if it wasn’t? Everyone has theories and opinions, some of them are written in journal articles and some aren’t. So without an answer (and fearing being asked the questions in case I was found out) I ventured out into the field, once again playing the questioner but with a very different perception of the answers I received. People at the top of the public health and social enterprise sectors seemed far less adversarial than academic papers and theories. They compromised and welcomed differences, taking on differing views and opinions. They didn’t have answers to the questions, and often they weren’t looking for them. They were far more concerned with what worked, and how, and less about what it’s called.

So what about a new approach? Don’t ask the questions at all? And don’t worry about the dearth of answers? Use an accepted definition of social enterprise as a means to an end, use a theory of the ways in which health can be improved, find examples where the former does the latter, and ask how they did it. This involved examining why and how certain processes were undertaken, who was impacted and in what ways. What has emerged are a number of processes undertaken by organisations that could be considered social enterprises, leading to a number of outcomes associated with health.

This tentative result appears unremarkable, it doesn’t even answer the initial questions. But it has the potential to form a contemporary analysis of how social enterprise can act as a public health intervention, which is, fundamentally, what I’m employed to do. So when someone asks me the questions again, and I answer them as above, I’ll do so with much more confidence than I did in my interview. It’s funny how academia does that, makes you very proud of knowing less than when you started. But crucially, leading you towards what you need to know.